The Nation

Arthur Schlesinger Vs. The Imperial President

"The good historian does not stop with the history. As the situation requires and compels, he goes on to making it."-- John Kenneth Galbraith on the legacy of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who has died at age 89, remained an active and important commentator on American politics until his last days. In New York City, where he resided, he was a steady presence -- not merely on the op-ed page of The New York Times but at events like the debut of Robert Greenwald's documentary "Outfoxed," where I recall talking with him at great length about our mutual sense of the sorry state of American media in the 21st century.

There will be much discussion about Schlesinger's legacy; wise and well-meaning commentators will diverge with regard to the important contributions of this multifaceted man. He played a central role in defining post-war liberalism, helping Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and others to forge Americans for Democratic Action -- and then explaining the ideology, with his 1949 book, The Vital Center. He authored essential texts on American democracy and the presidency, especially his first-hand recollection of serving in the administration of John Kennedy, A Thousand Days. He advised presidents, including Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and he challenged presidents -- Schlesinger's high-profile departure from the Johnson administration was followed by his emergence as one of the most articulate and aggressive critics of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He nurtured and encouraged several generations of young historians and writers, including this one, who even as we sometimes disagreed on fine points regarding Henry Wallace or multiculturalism had the great pleasure of spending many an afternoon talking politics with the historian in his old offices at the Graduate School of the City of New York.

I will always value Schlesinger most for his popularization of the concept that America in the 2Oth century developed an "imperial presidency." Schlesinger, a confidante of candidates and presidents from Adlai Stevenson to Bobby Kennedy to Bill Clinton, was not so averse to the exercise of presidential powers as some of us. But he was a brilliant student of the accumulations and abuses of those powers. And he boldly spoke up when he believed presidents had stepped across Constitutional and moral lines. While Schlesinger popularized the phrase, "the imperial presidency," as a description for the excesses of Richard Nixon, he applied it with even greater urgency to the presidency of George W. Bush.

In the early 197Os, Schlesinger wrote of his fear that American political system was threatened by "a conception of presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity."

Thirty years later, Schlesinger saw those fears realized in ways that even he had not dared imagine. When John Dean, who would suggest that the misdeeds of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were "worse than Watergate," asked Schlesinger if the Bush presidency met the classic definition of executive excess, the historian replied, "I'd certainly say this is an imperial presidency."

The historian worried deeply, and wrote frequently, about his concerns regarding the excessive secrecy and the disregard for the rule of law that have characterized the Bush presidency. But Schlesinger worried most about Bush's misread of his role as commander-in-chief. A scholar of the separation of powers, and a true believer in the benefits of checks and balances, Schlesinger wanted the Congress to challenge Bush with regards to the rush to invade Iraq and the execution of the occupation that followed upon it.

Schlesinger was blunt about what he thought of Bush's war in Iraq. It was, he wrote "based on fantasy, deception and self-deception." He was equally blunt about what he thought of Bush's hunger for a confrontation with Iran, which he suggested was "also fantasy, deception and self-deception."

Above all, Schlesinger believed that Bush desperately needed advice and counsel from critics of his policies -- be they members of Congress or Pulitzer Prize-winning historians who had freelanced as White House aides.

One of the finest of Schlesinger's articles in recent years imagined "A Quiet Telephone Conversation With George W. Bush." In it, he recalled the president asking for ideas about how to handle the Iraq imbroglio.

"I would seize an appropriate moment to declare victory -- and cut and run," Schlesinger imagined telling Bush, in an article written in 2OO5 for the Financial Times newspaper.

To Bush's suggestion that such a move would "wreck our credibility," the historian replied with just a bit of whimsy, "Cut-and-run has a bad reputation." Then, explaining that he had heard the same fears expressed before the U.S. exit from Vietnam, Schlesinger continued, "The reaction of most foreigners was to see America, after a long aberration, coming to its senses. Cut-and-run got us out of an unwinnable war in which our vital interests were not involved. Cut-and-run liberated U.S. armed forces for containment and deterrence elsewhere on the planet. Our withdrawal from Vietnam actually increased our credibility -- as de Gaulle's retreat from Algeria increased France's credibility. And the aftermath refuted the domino theory that got us into the Vietnam War -- just as the aftermath refutes the weapons-of-mass-destruction theory that got us into the Iraq War. Mr. President, please contemplate our withdrawal from Vietnam as a historic precedent."

In the imaginary conversation, Schlesinger acknowledged that, "The future of Iraq is uncertain. Cut-and-run might lead to free-for-all anarchy or to Islamic domination; but it might equally precipitate Sunni-Shiite-Kurd collaboration in containing the insurgency and governing the country. Maybe the shock of U.S. withdrawal will stimulate the rise of Iraqi responsibility."

Rather than focus on what will happen in Iraq if the U.S. leaves, however, the historian suggested that Bush should more seriously consider the consequences of staying the course. "[Surely] so long as the American military occupation lasts, it serves as a recruiting incentive for terrorists all over the Middle East... That is the fatal contradiction in the policy of staying the course."

After some addition sparring with Bush, who Schlesinger imagined referring to him as "Artie," the historian finished by counseling, "Mr. President, our true national interests lie in ending this senseless war."

There will be many epitaphs for Arthur Schlesinger Jr. But I suspect that the man who sought not merely to explain the arc of history but to bend it in the direction of sanity would appreciate being remembered as an American whose wisdom and patriotism prevented him from deferring to a presidents gone wrong. And that the great historian of the American presidency tried to his last to counsel a particularly imperial president to abandon a particularly wrong course.

Actually, if there is to be a specific epitaph, perhaps it is best taken from an article Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote late last summer, titled, "Bush's Thousand Days." He closed by warning that, "There is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war."


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Legislation Watch

In 2001, Representative Dennis Kucinich introduced legislation to create a Department of Peace and Nonviolence to "not only make nonviolence an organizing principle in our society, but to make war archaic," as he told Studs Terkel in an article for The Nation in 2002.

Six years later, H.R. 808 has 59 cosponsors – including Rep. Jim McDermott – who writes that the bill "embodies the dreams and aspirations of Americans to live in a nation that uses its great strength to support the cooperative efforts of people throughout the world to create peace." The legislation calls for $8 billion in annual funding – less than one month of spending on the Iraq War and in stark contrast to the $439 billion allocated to the military in the recent Bush budget.

The Department of Peace would develop policies and allocate resources to support cutting-edge approaches to issues like domestic violence, child abuse, violence in schools, and racial violence. McDermott writes, "Internationally, a Department of Peace will advise the president and Congress on the most innovative techniques to establish and promote peace among nations, and will research and analyze the root causes of war to help prevent conflicts from escalating to the point of violence."

Kucinich is a man who fights injustice wherever he finds it. "The American Revolution never really ended," he told Terkel. "It's a continuing process. I think we're approaching the revolution of hope. We have the country that makes it possible for people, if they've lost control of the government, to regain it in a peaceful way."

There is great depth to Kucinich's commitment to peace – a commitment that led him to speak out against the invasion of Iraq before it happened at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in 2003. In the same speech he renewed his call for a Department of Peace, saying, "Peace is a civil right, which makes other human rights possible. Peace is the precondition for our existence. Peace permits our continued existence."

At a time when our Defense Department might as well be called by its original name – the Department of War – Kucinich's vision of a Cabinet level-office devoted to non-violent conflict resolution is worth organizing around (and students should click here). Although it is highly unlikely that such a bill would be passed in the current Congress, a Department of Peace is something to strive for.

Kucinich has the opportunity to achieve something extraordinary by reframing the way we approach peace and security. His tenacity brings to mind the great Robert F. Kennedy (and George Bernard Shaw) quote: "Some men see things as they are and say ‘why?' I dream things that never were and say ‘why not?' "

Libby Trial: Waiting for the Verdict

I'm still at the federal district courthouse waiting for the verdict in the obstruction of justice tral of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. But this just in: on Wednesday at 3:45 pm, the jurors sent a note to Judge Reggie Walton. It read in its entirety:

We would like another big Post-it pad. The large one for the easel.

The previous day, the jury had sent a question to the judge regarding Count Three of the indictment (which accuses Scooter Libby of lying to the FBI about statements he made to reporter Matt Cooper about former Ambassador Joe Wilson's wife). But by the time the judge was able to respond to the note on Wednesday morning, the jurors had already resolved the issue. "After further discussion," the jury foreperson wrote the judge, "we are clear on what we had to do. No further clarification needed. Thank you. We apologize."

After the matter--or non-matter--was resolved, the question was made public by the court. The jurors had asked, "Is the charge that the statement was made or about the content of the statement itself?" Reporters in the press room subsequently tried to discern precisely what the jurors were asking. It was not clear. Nor was the note a clue that pointed in any direction.

So what do these two notes mean? They suggest the jury is still hard at work, in the weeds, plodding through the details of the case--after six days of deliberation. The eleven jurors--one juror was booted because she came into contact with outside information on the case--are even on to their second easel pad. From that you can draw your own conclusions. I'm not making any guesses.


DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Inside Cheney's Bunker

The US government and military have undergone a series of jolting expansions in the Bush years. We got, for instance, a second Defense Department called the Department of Homeland Security. We got a military command for North America called United States Northern Command. More than anything else, however, while we already had an "imperial presidency," we also got an add-on--an imperial vice-presidency, a new form of shadow government in the United States, a startlingly unbound, constitutionally unmandated new institutional power.

On taking office, Dick Cheney promptly began to set up a vice-presidential office that essentially mimicked, and then to some extent replaced, the National Security Council (NSC). Just as promptly, his office plunged itself into utter, blinding secrecy--as journalist Robert Dreyfuss discovered when he simply tried to chart out who was working in this new center of power. No information, it turned out, could be revealed to a curious reporter, not even the names and positions of those who worked for the Vice President, those who, theoretically, were working for us. Cheney's office would not even publicly acknowledge its own employees, no less let them be interviewed.

From that office (and allied posts elsewhere in the executive branch and the federal bureaucracy), the Vice President and his various right-hand men like I Lewis "Scooter" Libby and present Chief of Staff David Addington, both fierce believers in the so-called unitary executive theory of government (in which a "wartime" commander-in-chief president is said to have unfettered power to command just about anything), elbowed the State Department, the NSC, and the Intelligence Community. With the President's ear, and in league with Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon (among others), they spearheaded a series of mis- and disinformation operations that led to Iraq and beyond. (Reporter Jim Lobe wrote about this at Tomdispatch in August 2005, "Dating Cheney's Nuclear Drumbeat.")

Now shorn of Rumsfeld, Cheney and his men, increasingly beleaguered, are nonetheless pushing on as the Vice President secretively travels the world, warning and scheming. Only this week, in "The Redirection," a New Yorker piece as chilling as any you might ever want to read, our premier journalist of this era (as well as the Vietnam one), Seymour Hersh reports that, two years ago, old hands from the Iran-Contra fiasco of the Reagan era, well-seeded into the Bush administration, had an informal meeting led by Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams. Their conclusions: "As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: ‘One, you can't trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can't trust the uniformed military, and four, it's got to be run out of the Vice-President's office."

That's what passes for learning from experience in the Bush/Cheney White House. Indeed, the same folks are now evidently running an updated version of Iran-Contra (without the CIA) out of the Vice President's office. At the same time, according to Hersh, Cheney, in his urge to roll back Iranian regional power as well as undermine Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia in Iraq, and the Syrians, has set the Saudis loose to fund Sunni jihadis--just as they did in Afghanistan at American behest in the 1980s. The result then was, among other things, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So imagine: Cheney's office is now working hard to combine the worst of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal with the worst of the Afghan disaster. I wonder what the results could possibly be?

The history of this sudden explosion of ultra-secretive vice-presidential power remains to be written, based on documents that have not yet seen the light of day. The Libby trial has recently offered us a glimpse into the most secretive and powerful office in the land and its interplay with the White House, State Department, and CIA. As former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega points out, that glimpse should be enough to trigger a Congressional investigation into the Plame case. It's time to open a few windows on that claustrophic bunker of a vice-presidential office. It's time, she tells us, for Congress to investigate all the President's and Vice President's men and women.

The Right to Organize

Last week, the House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee voted yes on the Employee Free Choice Act. This was a huge step forward in the fight to restore the ability of workers' to form unions.

Some 57 million US workers regularly tell pollsters that they would join a union if they could. But current US labor laws are often too weak to stop the intimidation, harassment and retaliation workers often face from employers when they try to organize.

The Employee Free Choice Act would ensure that when a majority of employees in a workplace decide to form a union, they can do so without the debilitating obstacles employers now use to block their free choice.

Now that the Committee has voted favorably, the bill is moving to a vote by the full House, currently expected to be tomorrow, Thursday, March 1. A business coalition reportedly launched a six-figure radio ad campaign yesterday in an attempt to convince three Democratic freshmen who represent conservative districts to defy organized labor and vote against the bill. Help counter these tactics by taking a minute TODAY to urge your elected representatives to vote in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act and by clicking here to spread the word on this crucial struggle.

The Business of the News Business

Over the last month PBS's Frontline has produced a terrific series on the future of news. Last night's third-part, on the business of journalism, was particularly compelling--and alarming.

No longer is reporting judged and valued by the people who read and create good journalism. What increasingly matters is what Wall Street cares about: the bottom-line.

Take one example featured in last night's show: the Los Angeles Times. For most of its history the paper was owned by the Chandler family, which generously supported it. In 1995 the Chandler's relinquished their publisher role and the paper entered a period of turmoil. The Tribune Company of Chicago bought the paper in 2000 and installed John Carroll, formerly of the Baltimore Sun, as editor, and Dean Baquet, formerly of the New York Times, as managing editor.

Between 2000 and 2006, the LA Times won 13 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other paper. It posted 20 percent a year in operating profits. And still that was not enough for the Tribune Company, which mandated more and more cuts in the paper's budget and workforce to appease restless shareholders. "You have to make more money every year than you made the last year in order to keep the shareholders happy," says Carroll.

By last year, Carroll had had enough and resigned in protest. Baquet was promoted, but after resisting further cuts, he too was shown the door. "There's tension between my view of my world and the people who own newspapers," Baquet says.

He rightly believes that good journalism should be a "public trust." The Frontline special reinforces why. The entire series is online. I strongly recommend you check it out.

News Not Fit to Print?

Last weekend, I wrote here about the history of US government attempts to suppress information. My case study was the Kennedy Administration's successful effort to delay publication of the New York Times' story about CIA planning for the Bay of Pigs disaster. (Since then, several generations of Times editors have publicly regretted that decision. "Our biggest failures," Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote last year, "have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After the Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco.")

Yet in these last two days, the Times has acceded to Bush Administration requests to withhold information from the American public.

In yesterday's edition, the paper of record reports that it was "asked to withhold any mention of [Cheney's] trip until he had left Pakistan." What conceivable national security purpose was served by swearing the press pool to secrecy about this trip? And doesn't accepting these ground rules play into the hands of a hyper-secretive Vice-President whose signature contribution to our security has been misleading us into a disastrous war and carpet bombing our constitutional system? The secrecy does expose a national security problem: the "war" on terror is a rank failure and Pakistan is not the stable country that White House talking points try to sell us.

Here's another instance of White House pressure. A front page article in Monday's New York Times --providing conditional evidence of Iranian weapons in Iraq--acknowledges that the paper acceded to Bush Administration requests that it withhold specific details about the weapons. As the Times reported: "In the course of the detailed briefing on the Hilla discovery, Maj. Marty Weber, an explosives expert, said that most of the E.F.P.s in Iraq use C-4 plastic explosive manufactured in Iran. At the request of the Bush Administration, The Times is withholding some specific details about the weapons to protect intelligence sources and methods."

Hours after the story appeared, Congressman Dennis Kucinich issued a statement -- "The New York Times Plays into Bush Administration's Hand." "The White House," Kucinich says, "is up to its old scams again: Providing information by anonymous sources ..... This time, however, they added another trick to their bag: providing the information and prohibiting the Times from publishing it.....The New York Times should not print unsourced, unattributed assertions and then voluntarily hide the details from the American public..." The paper, he went on to argue, "is playing into the Administration's hand and providing further justification for an attack on Iran."

Nancy Pelosi: Farm Girl

Nancy Pelosi has proven to be a far more politically savvy Speaker of the House than most of her critics, and some of her fans, expected. This is not to say that she has done enough to end the war in Iraq or hold the Bush administration to account, nor that she has avoided predictable pitfalls that are discovered by new congressional leaders. But she has kept her caucus together and drawn significant Republican support as the House has addressed minimum wage, stem cell research and ethics issues that were neglected by her Republican predecessor.

Even conservative commentator Bob Novak, via the anything but Pelosi-friendly Evans-Novak political wire, commented that, "The ‘hundred hours' program of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been a success beyond all anticipation. The passage of poll-approved measures came with a unanimous Democratic vote and heavy -- in some cases majority -- Republican support. This performance shows the error and futility of Republican expectations that Pelosi as speaker would fall on her face…"

But Pelosi's achievement ought be measured merely by reviewing the legislation that has passed the House. It is also important to pay attention to her outreach to constituencies that Democrats tended to ignore during the Clinton and early Bush years -- to the party's dramatic detriment.

On Friday, Pelosi will deliver the keynote address at the National Farmers Union's 105th annual convention. Her focus will be on opportunities for development in rural communities, with special attention to increasing the use of renewable fuels. The speaker recognizes that there is common ground on which the party's environmentally-conscious base can stand with farmers, and she is paying a lot of attention to that turf.

But the most important thing about Pelosi's appearance at the NFU convention in Orlando will not be what she says. Rather, it will be that the most prominent Democrat in Washington is going out of her way to spend time with farmers and ranchers.

For years, Democrats prattled on and on about how to appeal to this suburb or that suburb, failing to recognize that they were losing winnable House seats in the vast rural stretches beyond metropolitan America. Campaign after campaign went by, with Republicans printing up their "Farmers and Ranchers for Gingrich," "Farmers and Ranchers for Dole," "Farmers and Ranchers for Bush" signs and, by virtue of minimal attention to rural voters, gaining victories that never should have gone to the party of corporate agribusiness. The Democratic Party's failure to address basic concerns of rural America -- on issues ranging from trade policy to renewable fuels to the unique concerns of remote regions regarding health care and education -- cost the party dearly.

Along with the new Democratic chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Minnesota's Colin Peterson -- who will also address the NFU convention -- and Iowa's Tom Harkin, Pelosi has worked hard to get farm and rural issues back on the party's agenda. Even before she was speaker, Pelosi urged the formation in 2OO3 of the Rural Working Group, an advisory panel of House members that focuses on policy matters that are of particular concern to farmers and residents of small towns and cities.

Others, particularly Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and that state's new Democratic senator, Jon Tester, have worked hard and well to get Democrats to recognize that there are unmet economic and social needs in rural America -- not to mention significant openings for smart electoral appeals by a Democratic Party that recognizes and addresses those needs. But Pelosi, a native of Baltimore who now represents San Francisco, has been impressively attentive to the concerns of corners of America that have in recent years been exploited by too many Republicans and neglected by too many Democrats.

NFU President Tom Buis says "[Pelosi] is leading the charge to develop strong rural policy in Congress."

That is high praise, indeed, for a big-city politician like Pelosi. But she has earned it by going out of her way to pay attention to rural America, by focusing on proper policies and, perhaps just as importantly, by showing up for events like the convention of the National Farmers Union.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Money for Lefties

The right has been generously funding conservative student activists for years. On the other side, the Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund is currently taking applications for grants for progressive student activists for the 2007-08 academic year. These need-based scholarships are awarded to both full-time undergraduate and graduate students actively working for peace and justice.

The maximum grant is $8,000 and awards may be considerably smaller depending on the applicant's circumstances and the funding available. There are 25 to 30 grants awarded each year with all funds come from individual donors. Grants are for one year although students may re-apply for subsequent funding. The deadline for applying is April 1.

Created in 1961, the Fund was originally established as the Marian Davis Scholarship Fund, a memorial to a teacher and outspoken advocate for racial justice and the rights of labor who died of breast cancer in 1960. While raising her family, she was also at home in the classroom, on the picket line, or in a jail cell. Marian's husband, Horace B. Davis, organized the Fund as a tribute to a talented teacher, loved by her students, who was persecuted for her work for peace and freedom.

Recent grantees have been active in the struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia; in building the movement for economic justice; and in working toward peace through international anti-imperialist solidarity.

If you're a student, click here for info on how to apply.

If you're not a student but want to join Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Grace Paley, Pete Seeger and Bernice Johnson Reagon in supporting the Davis-Putter Fund, click here. All funds come from the contributions of individual donors -- there is no endowment. The Fund depends entirely on the generosity of sympathetic individuals to support a new generation of progressive students.